Warren Wilson College News

Warren Wilson commencement speakers: not from the same mold

by Ben Anderson

This article is part of The Story Behind, a regular series that features extraordinary photos from Warren Wilson life. (Click here to see more.)

Ray Anderson

Although forerunner Asheville Farm School was founded way back in the 19th century, it’s easy to forget that Warren Wilson College has been awarding bachelor’s degrees for barely more than 40 years. After transitioning to a four-year college in the 1960s, Warren Wilson awarded its first four-year degrees in 1969. Because upper-division classes were not offered until 1967, there was no graduating class at Warren Wilson in 1968.

Today, of course, the College bestows both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, though the latter are awarded at separate ceremonies held by the MFA Program for Writers. In 2010, when writer Tony Earley ’83 delivered a side-splitting main address, Warren Wilson granted more than 200 bachelor’s degrees – 201, to be precise – at commencement for the first time. This year’s contingent of graduates will approach that number.

Tony Earley

For most of the 1970s, the task and honor of delivering the commencement address was assumed by Warren Wilson President Reuben A. Holden, who succeeded Arthur M. Bannerman as president in 1971. Since 1980, however, the commencement speaker has generally come from outside the college, though a few in addition to Earley have been Warren Wilson alumni. In the 1980s and 1990s, several speakers held positions with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Over the past 30 years or so, men and women from various walks of life have given the main address. Their ranks include the following from public life:

  • U.S. congressman.
  • Former U.S. commissioner of education.
  • President of the Czech Commission for UNESCO.
  • Former mayor of Charlotte.
  • Chairman of the N.C. State Board of Education.
  • Former ambassador to the United Kingdom.
  • Vice President of the United States.

Yes, Vice President George H.W. Bush delivered the address in 1986, about 2½ years before he was elected President. That also was the year Ben Holden retired after a successful 15-year run as Warren Wilson president.

Many other fields and professions have been represented by speakers that have included writers, educators, clergy and singers/songwriters. In 2009 Ray Anderson, chairman and founder of Interface Inc., became the first commencement speaker in Warren Wilson’s history as a four-year college to come straight from the corporate world.

And this year? 2011 commencement speaker Sylvia Earle also broke new ground when she delivered the address May 14 on Sunderland Lawn. A National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence, the pioneering Earle was indeed the first oceanographer to give a commencement address at Warren Wilson College.

Sylvia Earle

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